How to Build a Small Garden – Planted Perfect
Your cart

How to Build a Small Garden


In the year 1790 one in twenty Americans lived in an urban environment. Today that number has soared to four out of five. That change has had a dramatic effect on how we live our lives, the type of architecture we choose and of course the size of our gardens. Our outdoor spaces have shrunk dramatically, in part because we no longer have those vast tracts of land cheaply available but also because we no longer have the time to devote to our gardens that our forefathers once did.

Here is the weird thing that I probably should not confess to as a professional landscaper and garden designer: I much prefer smaller gardens. I am not suggesting I don’t like those vast rolling gardens with their swathes of green lawn and gigantic trees and shrubs. It is just that I find something really cozy and comforting in a well designed small outdoor space. It creates a sort of private oasis or sanctuary that is somehow more intimate and reassuring at the same time.

Small Garden Space


I have had the luxury of both visiting and working in some amazing small spaces. The English are masters at the small outdoor room, as they are so fond of calling their smaller gardens, and the French also have some real gems tucked away if you know where to look for them. For sheer mastery of the beautiful courtyard, however, the Moroccans are hard to beat. Pass through the nondescript doorway of any of the rather run down looking buildings in the backstreets of Marrakesh and more often than not you will be rewarded with a breathtaking courtyard garden invariably built around a pool or fountain.

The secret to the successful small garden always lies in its original design. You have a smaller canvas to work with and as a result every inch of it needs to be thought out in advance and used to gain maximum effect. Here are a few tips that you might find useful in designing or modifying your own small space.

Start with a plan

It is important to get those shapes and the proportions just right. Any error in scale that may have gone unnoticed in a large garden will soon be revealed in a smaller one, especially as they tend to be overlooked and when seen from above there is little room for error. Measure the space as accurately as you can then create a scale drawing of its borders. Include lines of sight such as doors and windows of the house from which the garden will be seen. Now take your time and enjoy the process of sketching out the different design options you have been dreaming of. Don’t even begin to think of the plants at this stage. You are creating the skeleton and fleshing it out with planting will come later.

Be practical

Before creating your dream design consider the very real practicalities that are imposed on you. Every space comes with a variety of pros and cons and you need to make the positive points work for you and eliminate or minimize the effect of the negative ones. Here you need to be considering your budget, where the light is most beneficial and other points such as where in the garden you will have the most privacy if overlooked by neighbors. If you are going to have things such as compost bins or a shed, consider where best to place them and ways to make them a part of the garden rather than just unsightly appendages.

Use hard materials wisely

All manner of hard landscape materials are available that will really make or break the skeleton you are building. Consider carefully what paving, walling and woodwork will most enhance the garden and try to keep them consistent with the house or apartment. As a rule I like to aim for consistency and never use more than two or three hard landscape materials at once otherwise the effect tends to be too busy and uncoordinated.

Take advantage of height

With a limited amount of ground space it is important to use any other space you have available to you. Walls, trellises, pergolas and fences all provide vertical space on which you can hang containers or grow climbing plants. Something as simple as a garden shed that may have once have been ugly can be transformed into a stunning focal point with just a coat of paint and a climbing rose growing up a trellis.

The fleshing out

This is the part that every gardener looks forward to the most. Once the garden has been designed and the skeleton is built there comes that blissful stage you have been awaiting with such impatience: the decorating phase. This is the part you have lain awake dreaming about. You have trawled every garden centre and nursery for a hundred miles and you have a thousand things you want to incorporate. Some stunning terracotta pots, that wacky little sculpture you saw at an art exhibition that costs as much as a small car and about fifteen thousand different plants. Now is the time to put the brakes on and take a deep breath. You have reached a very dangerous milestone in the garden design process. After all that thought at the design stage, all that sweat at the building stage and all that stress at the paying for it stage don’t go and mess it up now. A small garden can only incorporate so many plants. Think about them very carefully and take it slowly otherwise you risk turning your master piece into a fruit salad that looks like it was designed by a color blind desert chef. Keep the pallet simple is the most important rule.


With the containers and furniture, just as with the hard materials you used earlier, try to stick to a theme that will create some sort of continuity. It will help unify the whole garden into something more cohesive. You only have a small amount of space so it may be that you need to choose furniture that doubles as storage in some way. You also probably won’t have the luxury of overwintering cover for either the furniture or the pots so choose materials that can survive being left outdoors in all weather conditions.

Container Gardening

Remember that it is not necessary to produce the final product in one go. Gardening at its best is a constantly evolving art form and you can add to your creation over time. This will give you a chance to get a feel for how the plants are settling in and see how the garden matures with time. It will also give you finances an opportunity to recover from the beating they have just taken.

Although storage may be a problem, one of the beauties of the small garden is that you do not need a huge array of power tools to maintain it with. I prefer not to design any lawn into my smaller projects. Maintaining a tiny patch of lawn becomes a real hassle and I would rather do away with it altogether. Much of the maintenance work in a small garden can be done with a good pair of secateurs, some snips and a good pair of clippers from time to time. Secateurs are probably the most essential tool a gardener can carry. Once you becoming accustomed to looking after your garden there will hardly ever be a time when you venture outdoors without seeing a branch that needs pruning slightly or a climber that does not need to be taken back just ever so slightly.

One feature that can work well in a small garden, either as a focal point or simply to emphasize structure, is topiary. I always cut this by hand with either clippers or snips and usually both. I find power tools too cumbersome and inaccurate for this more delicate work. Let me assure you of one thing however: no matter how much effort and concentration you put into trimming your topiary, the very next day there will, without doubt, be one arrogant little bud or leaf that has somehow survived the previous days onslaught and now stands up to taunt you and detract from all your hard work. This is just another reason to never venture into the garden without those precious secateurs at hand.

Pruning Bush